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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

From Freud to Focus Groups

Television is banned from two of the three places I currently call home but a Torrent service I have access to in Sofia has, over the past few months, allowed me to view, on my PC, films (but of of my choice), presentations - by people such as Varoufakis - and documentaries.

The experience makes me begin to question my previous reluctance to allow moving images into my home…..and Frankie Boyle is all to blame……He is perhaps one of the most outrageous comedians ever to walk a stage (more risqué by far than my old favourites of Little Britain) and has recently taken the unusual step of starting to write for the Guardian.  I almost split a rib laughing at his article in today’s paper. I do understand that humour doesn’t easily cross borders (and his accent certainly doesn’t) but this excerpt will give a sense of his style…   
The Labour party has, from the beginning, been made up of diverse factions; that’s its beauty – asking it to become cohesive is like trying to find one shampoo that will care for the hair of everybody in Angelina Jolie’s house. Until recently, Labour politicians have been scared to tell anyone their opinions as they had to have one that appealed to every single person in the country. Under Ed Miliband the current manifesto would just say: “Good Adele’s back, isn’t it?”
A certain nostalgia in the parliamentary party is inevitable: it’s hard to deny Blair helped to create a powerful movement. Unfortunately that movement was the Islamic State.

I started to read the discussion thread (2425 comments already!!) but, typically, got sidetracked early on by a reference to a documentary about the role of Saudi Arabia in post-war politics which turned out to be a mind-blowing piece - Bitter Lake - from Adam Curtis, the Director of a powerful series I saw some years back called The Century of the Self which 
advances the thesis that Freud's views of the unconscious set the stage for corporations, and later politicians, to market to our unconscious fears and desires. It shows how advertising once aimed to influence rational choice. This gave way in the early 20th century to advertising aimed to connect feelings with a product.
Amazingly enough, at the root of this change was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, an American propagandist in WWI, who applied his wartime experience and his uncle’s theories of the unconscious to peacetime commerce. He invented the field of public relations, popularized press releases and product tie-ins, and changed public opinion about matters ranging from women smoking to the use of paper cups — all to increase sales.
Viewing politics as just another product to sell, Bernays also helped Calvin Coolidge stage one of the first overt media acts for a president, and helped engineer the 1954 coup in Guatemala on behalf of his client the United Fruit Company, by painting their democratically elected leader as communist. This and more happens in just the first hour of the documentary, titled “Happiness Machines.”
The second part focuses on the ascendancy of psychoanalysis and Anna Freud’s consolidation of power. The point here is that the unconscious was seen as a dangerous menace that needed to be kept under lock and key. Rational choice, especially by crowds, was unreliable under its influence, so “guidance from above” (in Bernays’ words) was needed from political leaders and corporations for the public good.
The conformity and mass-marketing of the 1950s reflects this view of a public that cannot be trusted to think for itself. The pendulum swings the other way in the third and best installment, “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads [and] He Must be Destroyed.”
By the 1960s the human potential movement urged the expression of impulses instead of their repression. Business was eager to help. By marketing products as a means of self-expression, business turned from channeling public impulses to pandering to them.There is a fascinating discussion in the film about political activism being co-opted in this process: making the world a better place gave way to making oneself better in ways that, not coincidentally, required buying more goods and services.
The final segment, called “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering,” follows this impulse-pandering into politics. Instead of political leadership we now have politics led by focus groups. The public gets what it asks for not what it needs (healthcare and infrastructure improvements).

You can read the full script here and view the documentary itself here

Good documentaries require a rare combination - knowledge of the subject, experience of filming, appropriate selection and editing of text, images and music, and appreciation of how to fit them together
One of the best websites for challenging documentaries must be Thought Maybe – which I thoroughly recommend. You might also like this list of the best 50 documentaries of all time - from the excellent Sight and Sound journal.

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